Tips from an Olympian: visualize your success

Posted: January 19th, 2013 | Featured, Health & Fitness, Lifestyle | 1 Comment

Brian White | Fitness

Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympian that has ever lived.

He probably knows a thing or two about creating successful habits, wouldn’t you say?

Brian White

Bob Bowman has been Michael Phelps’ swim coach since Phelps was 7 years old. Bowman believed that for swimming, the key to victory was creating the right routines or habits.

Beginning during Phelps’ teenage years, his coach would tell him at the end of each practice to go home and “watch the videotape. Watch it before you go to sleep and when you wake up.”

The videotape wasn’t real. Rather it was a mental visualization of the perfect race.

Phelps would visualize every detail: the water dripping off his lips, the wake behind his body and what it would feel like to rip his cap off at the end. He would do this every night and every morning with his eyes closed, until he knew each second by heart, a habit that became automatic.

Good thing.

The following is from Charles Duhigg’s book, “The Power Of Habit.”

“Beijing, 2008: It is 9:56 a.m., four minutes before the race’s start. Phelps stood behind his starting block, bouncing slightly on his toes. When the announcer said his name, Phelps stepped onto the block, as he always did (and envisioned thousands of times), and then stepped down, as he always did. He swung his arms 3 times, as he had before every race since he was 12 years old. He stepped up on the blocks again, got into his stance, and, when the gun sounded, leapt.” †

Charles Duhigg’s bestselling book details Michael Phelps’ penchant for visualization. (Courtesy

Phelps knew something was wrong as soon as he hit the water. There was moisture inside his goggles. He couldn’t tell if they were leaking from the top or bottom, but as he broke the water’s surface and began swimming, he hoped the leak wouldn’t become too bad.

By the second turn, however, everything was getting blurry. As he approached the third turn and final lap, the cups of his goggles were completely filled. Phelps couldn’t see anything: not the line along the pool’s bottom or the black “T” marking the approaching wall. He couldn’t see how many strokes were left. For most swimmers, losing your sight in the middle of an Olympic final would be cause for panic.

Phelps was calm.

Everything else that day had gone according to plan. The leaking goggles were only a minor deviation, but one for which he was prepared.

He had mentally rehearsed how he would respond to a goggle failure. As he started the last lap, Phelps estimated how many strokes the final push would require – 19 or 20, maybe 21 – and started counting. He felt totally relaxed as he swam at full strength.

Midway through the lap he began to increase his effort, a final eruption that had become one of his main techniques in overwhelming opponents. At 18 strokes, he started anticipating the wall. He could hear the crowd roaring, but since he was blind, he had no idea if they were cheering him or someone else.

Nineteen strokes, then 20.

It felt like he needed one more. That’s what the videotape in his head said. He made a huge stroke, number 21 and, gliding with his arm outstretched, touched the wall.

He had timed it perfectly.

When he ripped off his goggles and looked up at the scoreboard, it said world record next to his name. He’d won another gold. After the race, a reporter asked what it felt like to swim blind.

“It felt like I imagined it would,” Phelps said.

I love this story because it is real life proof that visualization and creating the right habits can carry us through.

Visualization is one of the most powerful tools you can use to help keep you focused on attaining your individual goals, no matter how big or small that they are. Habits define your day, your life and your tomorrow.

If you can harness control of your daily habits, the sky is the limit to what you can accomplish. Clear visualization is the key to creating and sustaining healthy habits, from highly decorated athletes down to someone who is trying to get to the gym four days a week.

My tip for the week is to put together your own “videotape” of a new habit that will help you next time there is an urge to reach for the cookies in the freezer. For five minutes before you fall asleep, visualize yourself performing this new habit, right down to the tiniest detail.

Remember, the hardest habits to form are habits such as not having a glass of wine before bed because you are replacing an action – drinking wine – with nothing. To add to your chances of success, replace a bad habit with a good one and focus and visualize on the good one. Instead of wine, try a glass of lemon water, for example.

—Brian White owns BWF, San Diego’s Premier Training Service located in Hillcrest. He runs boot camps in Balboa Park and trains clients in Diverge Gym. Go to to read his blog, or take his seven-day video challenge to get back into healthy habits. Contact Brian at or on his website.

Excerpt used with permission of the author. Learn more about Duhigg and “The Power of Habit,” or click to purchase the book at the author’s website: 

One Comments

  1. […] Seeing is believing. Visualisation is a technique used by many athletes in order to improve performance. One proponent of visualisation is the most successful olympic athlete of all time, Michael Phelps. You can read about how he goes about visualising here and here. […]

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